In Defense Of Louisiana’s Magic

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Maybe it was when, in the fifth grade, I visited the Evangeline Oak in St. Martinville. Or maybe it was before that, when my parents took us to Natchitoches, and we stood on a balcony overlooking Cane River and watched the moment a switch was flipped and the entire town became awash in elaborate Christmas lights. Or perhaps it happened during the weekends I spent as a kid on the grounds of an old plantation outside of Cheneyville. Or sometime during the trips my mother and I would make down to the Children’s Hospital in New Orleans, how the whole place seemed musical to me; even the street signs read like song lyrics. It also could have happened in the seventh grade, when my classmates and I drove down to Cocodrie and spent a weekend exploring the surreal landscape of the marshland. Or the countless times we stopped into a rickety old restaurant in Livonia and ate, what was to me, the best food in the world. More than likely, it’s something I’ve always understood on some level, even before I could articulate it: I grew up in a place that seemed, at times, capable of being truly and unexpectedly magical.

This is not to suggest that other places in the world are not equally as capable, and it’s not to overlook all of the bad in Louisiana: We’re poor; our politicians have always seemed to care more about themselves than the public they serve; we still struggle with myopic racism and historical denialism. We’ve become increasingly infected by self-righteous religious charlatans, and we’ve been repeatedly victimized by Christian dominionists, people who mask their intolerance for others by arguing that they are somehow the victims of persecution.

But, although it may be easy, don’t confuse the absurdities and failures of our politics and the extremism of those on the religious right with our culture.

On Tuesday, Dave Thier, a freelance writer based in New Orleans, published a piece in Esquire titled “Sorry, Louisiana Is Not Actually Made Of Magic.” I really wanted to like Mr. Thier’s piece, because I thought the headline was provocative. But the article was absurdly patronizing and completely disconnected. Mr. Thier is a Yale graduate who has lived in New Orleans for only three years. While we should all celebrate smart, young, educated professionals who move to Louisiana, it is unwise, arrogant, and misguided for a self-described “transplant” to hold himself out, to a national audience, as a curator of Louisiana culture, particularly when he implies that his understanding of his newly-adopted home has been informed by Hollywood.

Indeed, that seems to be the point of his article: Hollywood has lied about Louisiana being magical, which he can prove by way of juxtaposing the banalities of his own life. He watches Netflix and plays video games and prefers Thai take-out over the native cuisine of his adopted Louisiana. And this, I think, may bolster Mr. Thier’s argument that he’s just an ordinary American in his late twenties. But it completely destroys his credibility when it comes to opining on the culture and, yes, the magic of Louisiana.

Guess what? Hollywood lies about the magic of Los Angeles far more frequently than it does about Louisiana.

Maybe I’m being a little rough on Mr. Thier. After all, he does say some nice things about Louisiana, and in fairness to him, us Louisianians are notoriously protective over our culture. To be sure, his article for Esquire wasn’t nearly as obnoxious as a recent piece published in The New York Times.

But there’s a good reason we’re protective. We recognize our own vulnerability and fragility. We fear homogenization; we resent anything that resembles Disneyfication. We know what we possess is special and unique, and we don’t want it to become a part of a tour guided by some kid from Massachusetts whose most vehement defense of Louisiana is the suggestion that the movie “Beasts of the Southern Wild” is nothing more than “Southern Orientalism” or that the HBO show “True Detective” overly romanticized the Lake Charles area. Perhaps that sounds smart, but it’s sloppy and condescending and inaccurate.

Either way, though, Hollywood has nothing to do with the magic of Louisiana culture. You can’t learn about the magic on the silver screen or by paying for a Netflix subscription. It’s something that you have to experience, over and over again, in real life, before you can even begin to make sense of it, much less before you can really write about it.